BBC Regional Politics Coverage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:24 pm on 22nd June 2020.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 6:24 pm, 22nd June 2020

A few thoughts occurred to me when I was listening to my hon. Friend Neil Parish and some of the interventions that I think the BBC board would do well to reflect on.

The first is the question of the licence fee. I have my thoughts, and although I have not reached a conclusion about the licence fee, I can see both sides of the argument. One of the important things for the BBC to reflect on is that if it wants to retain the support of people across the country—although David Linden is no longer in his place, this is a debate that happens in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, as well as in England—it needs to retain the support of people from across the country for a compulsory fee. My hon. Friend Steve Brine said that if people do not pay that fee, they will go to prison. The BBC does need to think about what it is delivering. If it is not going to deliver anything different from what is available on a purely commercial basis, actually the licence fee is difficult to justify, so that is worth its reflecting on.

I talked about cost in my intervention earlier; that is actually very interesting, and again the BBC should reflect on it. I was looking at an interesting tweet from Chris Mason yesterday about technology. He had the example of a piece to camera that he did for the “Six O’Clock News” yesterday. The camera in question was the size of a highlighter pen, and the monitor used to film it was on his mobile phone. It seems to me that the developments in technology—I know this from interactions I have had with our own journalists from BBC Radio Gloucestershire about some of the technology now—mean that people can do things remotely. We do not have a whole swathe of people turning up; it is an individual, and those individuals do the recording, clip up the programmes and transmit them electronically straight into the studio. Technology should enable the BBC to deliver more local coverage more cost-effectively than ever before.

Of course, the BBC also has more platforms. My hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton talked about some well-watched television programmes in our region including “Sunday Politics West” and “Inside Out”. However, it is worth reflecting on the fact that these BBC local journalists not only produce content for BBC local radio, such as the fantastic BBC Radio Gloucestershire, and for television—for example, “Points West”, the evening news in our region, and “Sunday Politics West”—but also generate content for the BBC’s own website. I know that that can be controversial, because many local journalists and local newspapers think that that local content unfairly competes with them, and indeed it does, but we should just think about the fact that if the BBC is producing local content, it is a bit silly if we cannot access it on all the different platforms. The cost of producing regional and very local content is coming down and the number of platforms available for people on which to view that content is going up so people can see that content more effectively. Those are both questions for the BBC to focus on.

Mr Perkins also focused on accountability. This is not just about holding us here in Parliament to account on how we conduct ourselves locally and on our records as parliamentarians; it is also about local government, which he mentioned. It is important to have important local outlets—both newspapers and the BBC—because otherwise our local councils will not be held to account by anyone. Even in the time I have been involved in politics in my constituency, the level of coverage of what goes on in local council chambers has plummeted. We do not get the dedicated local government reporters that we used to get. There may be a big story going on in a local council—for example stories about social care or how we look after people with learning disabilities and how effectively we get them into work—but such local issues are never going to be covered properly by national broadcasters unless we have a truly national scandal. Instead, we have to depend on effective local coverage, which in terms of reach means the BBC.

It is also worth focusing on how many people actually see this content. I may not be completely up to date with the figures, but I remember, on my most recent visit to BBC Radio Gloucestershire, asking about the number of people who listen to its programmes. Its morning breakfast programme, the drive time programme, is listened to by many people in my own constituency as they commute —or at least as they used to commute by car, in the days pre-coronavirus—and in Gloucestershire more people listen to that programme than listen to Radio 4’s “Today” programme. So more people in Gloucestershire listen to that local radio station for their news and current affairs and to hold their democratically elected politicians to account than listen to a national leading broadcast programme.

That is really important, and it says two things to me. First, it says that if we did not have that local programme, we would not be holding local politicians, local business leaders and local decision makers to account. Secondly, the fact that the listening figures are so high suggests that my constituents and other Gloucestershire residents find that content more relevant and more interesting to them than that of the national broadcasting programmes that are available at the same time. If the BBC is thinking about its attractiveness to the public—this comes back to my point about the licence fee—it would do well to reflect on that before it wantonly casts these services aside.

My final point, on the cost-effectiveness of the regional services, is the point I made in my intervention. When I visit Radio Gloucestershire—and also when I visit BBC Bristol when I am there for “Sunday Politics”—I look around the studio and see how the staff have to multi-task to put programmes together. I do not see a lot of fat, a lot of waste or a lot of unnecessary fripperies. I see a very cost-effective operation covering what my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton and Honiton has described as a big region in the south-west. It is a shame that our colleague from Scotland, the hon. Member for Glasgow East, has gone, because my parliamentary neighbour, my hon. Friend Mr Robertson, is fond of saying—I checked this once, to ensure that it was accurate—that his constituency in Tewkesbury is closer to the England-Scotland border than it is to Land’s End. That just demonstrates the size of one region in England, and it shows the nonsense of suggesting that even that one region can be adequately covered from London, let alone all the regions in England. That is a really important point for the BBC to bear in mind.

Those of us who have had the opportunity to go to BBC HQ at Broadcasting House will have noted the disparity in the resources put into the BBC centrally. I remember having a conversation with the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, who told me that, when he did a press conference, he used to marvel—that is perhaps not the right word—at the number of questions he used to get from different bits of the BBC. Every single BBC programme insisted on sending its own person, rather than there being a single person to ask a question. There would be a question from the “Today” person, a question from the “Newsnight” person and a question from the BBC’s political editor. That did not suggest an organisation that was focused on delivering value for money. The BBC should bear that in mind.